Sunday, March 15, 2009

George Matthews: the famed Dominican trombonist and jazz legend who helped define a generation

By Thomson Fontaine

chick webb orchestra
The Chick Webb Orchestra with George Matthews believed to be holding the trombone.

Sometime in 1922, a ten year old George Matthews along with his family boarded a steamer at the port in Roseau headed for the bustling city of New York. They had joined the growing number of Dominicans who were finding their way overseas headed for a better life in the rapidly expanding America.

Five years later and already settled in their new home, his musician father enrolled him in the famed New York Martin Smith School of Music. Although his father was an accomplished guitarist having learned to play by ear in his native Dominica, the fifteen year old would opt to play the trombone, tuba and trumpet.

But it was his love for the trombone that would lead him to more than forty years of playing on the American stage and having a critical role in popularizing jazz, the big band swing, and the blues. Before his death in 1982, he would go on to record with such musical legends as Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday Count Bessie, Dizzy Gillespie, Otis Redding, and Chick Webb among others.

In the early 1920s, New York was buzzing with the Great Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement; a period during which African American literature, art, music and creativity flourished.

Before the Renaissance, an increasing number of blacks migrated from the South to the Northern industrial cities as more employment opportunities became available during World War I. In addition, the black middle class was increasing and more educational opportunities were available to blacks.

As the 1920s gave way to the 1930s and the Great Depression began taking hold, the largely previously upwardly mobile blacks were looking for ways to escape. No more was that more evident than in Harlem where there was an upsurge in music and the nightlife.

It was in that environment, that a young and gifted musician from Dominica would find his way and lend his immeasurable skill and energy in helping to define an era.

During that time black music was the rage. Every night, white people took taxis and subways uptown to Harlem to listen and dance to music by black musicians and singers at the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. While still enrolled at Martin Smith School of Music, Matthews would begin to play professionally, joining up with several small bands.

In 1934 he joined Tiny Bradshaw, with whom he made his first recording and built up quite a reputation. He then went on to perform and record with Willie Bryant (1935-7) and Louis Armstrong (1937). Matthews also made a few recordings with small groups during that time, including Chu Berry's octet (1937).

In 1938, the Savoy Ballroom became more of a permanent fixture when he joined up with the Chick Webb orchestra. For four years he would play with the orchestra as they popularized the big band swing and jazz.

Webb also help introduce a 15 year old Ella Fitzgerald to the world when he hired her as the lead vocals in his orchestra. On May 3, 1938, the band had its first recording Chick Webb’s Liza, which is still recognized as one of the finest jazz recordings ever.

This was quickly followed by A-Tisket, A-Tasket by Ella Fitzgerald (with Chick Webb). On May 4, 1939 Chew, Chew, Chew by Ella Fitzgerald (with Chick Webb) and George Matthews on trombone was recorded in Boston.

Sadly, shortly after the recording, Webb would be dead, at age 30. For the next two years, Ella Fitzgerald attempted to keep the band together before calling it quits in late 1941.

As the Second World War drew to a close, Matthews found himself playing with Lucky Millinder (1945) and would also spend the next four years with the Count Basie Orchestra, during which time he made many recordings.

On January 9, 1946 Queer Street was recorded by Count Basie in New York, followed by Rambo(featuring J.J. Johnson) and The King , recorded in New York on February 4, 1946, and Stay On It, recorded, July 31, 1946.

In April 1947 he recorded Jet propelled Papa with Helen Humes and the Buck Clayton's Orchestra. In 1949 there were more recordings with Count Besie including Blee Blop Blues (issued as "Normania") , Katy in which Matthews may be heard as a soloist. Billie Holiday: Tain't Nobody's Business was recorded in New York, August 17, 1949.

As the Count Basie Orchestra disbanded in 1950 Matthews moved over to Erskine Hawkins. This also provided him with an opportunity to show case his enormous talent as he embraced the era of rock and roll.

From the mid-1950s Matthews would work mainly as a freelance musician playing and recording with Ray Charles, Clark Terry, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Otis Redding and others.

As the 1960s rolled in, the now famed trombonist worked in a band led by Lucille Dixon. He also spent a significant amount of time performing on New York City's busy jazz scene, often in the brass section of Clark Terry's Big Band.

An excellent musician, Matthews also has some recording credits on tuba, even trumpet and has even been given mention as both a clarinetist and saxophonist.

George Matthews also appears on: Cannonball Adderley and His Orchestra, African Waltz (1961); Billie Holiday Anthology 1947/1956 (2008); Billie Holiday
Anthology 1947/1956 (2008) ; Count Basie, Basie's Basement (1950); Ella Fitzgerald Diva Series (2003); Dizzy Gillespie, Gillespiana/Carnegie Hall Concert (1961); Cannonball Adderley, Greatest Hits (1998); Ella Fitzgerald, Legendary Radio Broadcasts Mildred Bailey (2008); Ella Fitzgerald Live At The Savoy 1939-40 (2007) ; Billie Holiday, Priceless Jazz Collection: More Billie Holiday (1998); Chick Webb Stomping At The Savoy (2006) Box Set.

Eight years before his death in 1982, Matthews sat down with author and music historian Frank Driggs for an interview tracing the history of Jazz. From 1956 to 1986 Driggs conducted 314 oral histories in an effort to capture the truths of the development of jazz as related by a host of musicians and band leaders who defined the tradition.

All aspects of the jazz experience are captured in the interviews, ranging from musical triumphs to hardships on the road during the Great Depression.

The interviews were recorded on cassette as well as reel-to-reel audio tape and are housed in the Marr Sound Archives, a division of Special Collections in the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Many of the oral histories in the Driggs collection survive as the only known record of a musician's experiences and voice.

If you enjoyed this article you may wish to sample some of that sweet swing music at E-mail to a friend
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Thank you for bringing this story to your readers attention. I am very much into jazz and I'm glad to know that someone with Dominican roots was so instrumental in helping develop the art. Cuodos to the music legend! Now I'll listen more carefully the next time I play that wonderful music.
I really love it...Great work!!!
Very nice story. As a jazz emthusiast I am glad to know of Matthews contribution!!
This is so cool...I'm happy to know of such a tremendous contribution to msic coming from a Dominican! Way to go DA.
Sounds cool..way to go DA
Sounds really good! love it

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